As a little girl I used to stand in my pajamas at the utility sink in the laundry room and watch my father clean fish after an evening on the river. He would empty a creel of eight or so trout under running water into the sink — brookies, browns, rainbows. Sometimes they were still faintly flapping and gasping. Dad would take a fish in one hand, and with a sharp knife in the other, he would slit its belly from gills to tail.
He would slip his finger in, and out would slide the guts and organs into the sink. Sometimes we’d find eggs close to the tail of the females. He would scrape scales off the skin and cut the head off. Then he would pack the cleaned fish along with several others in an old milk carton or plastic bag, which he would fill with water and stash in the freezer.
I watched my father catch, kill, and clean a lot of trout, and I would feel sorry for the trout. I also ate a lot of fried trout. I have long lived with an awareness of the conflict, but it has never kept me from eating trout (or fishing for them myself).
Lately I have been greedily devouring a wonderful book by Novella Carpenter called Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Ms. Carpenter lives in a section of Oakland, California, that is so beset with poverty, homelessness, drugs, and crime that no one seems too worried about the goofy white girl who has taken over a vacant lot next door to her apartment and planted an organic utopia of fruits and vegetables and is keeping a slightly illegal array of chickens, bees, geese, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, goats, and (once) pigs.
Her story is compelling and funny. Ms. Carpenter is earthy in many senses of that word — from her impressive growing abilities to her language to her fearlessness with livestock.
She is raising animals for meat. Ms. Carpenter is not insensitive to the full implications of breeding and caring for a creature for the purposes of killing and eating it, and her telling of the life and death of Harold the Thanksgiving turkey is detailed and unflinching. In the course of the book she kills and eats other animals, too. There is always a moment of breathlessness, in which she seems to step outside of herself and watch her own actions with horror and fascination. It is not unlike the sensation I experienced watching my father clean trout.
While she seems unresolved about the act of killing a sentient being and consuming it, I would argue that Novella Carpenter is courageous — more courageous than most of us. Generally speaking (and faithful vegetarians notwithstanding), we modern carnivores don’t want to see, don’t want to know about that moment when a creature’s throat is cut, or when a body shudders in death throes, or when the eyes cloud over. We don’t want to know about plucking or flaying or bleeding out or viscera. Yet those moments have occurred so that we may eat what we crave. What we want to know is cellophane-wrapped protein that is completely disconnected from its life source — cold and bloodless, with little resemblance to an actual animal.
My chickens have names and chickenalities. I know them, I nurture them, I even love them. People sometimes ask me if I would ever kill one of my chickens if I got really, really hungry. The answer is yes, I would. I have considered raising birds for meat, but I’m not sure how my neighbors would feel about the bloody mess the process entails. And truth be told, I’m not sure I’m up to it yet. I still see the fish flapping and gasping, but those were my father’s hands, not mine.
Recently I have been thinking about rabbits. Some say that rabbits are the new backyard chicken. I’m not so sure the analogy holds up, but then I got to thinking about knitting, and yarn, and spinning, and angora rabbits. So I’ve decided to do a little research. A couple of friends have offered to help me learn to spin fiber. Wouldn’t it be interesting to harvest angora and spin it into yarn?
Whether this would be a step closer to meat or a step further away I am not certain. But it is a step closer to an awareness of the interconnectedness of all life — and death.